“Illuminata” is artistic as anything and, to those whose sensibilities are more refined than mine, probably some sort of triumph of the whole play within a play genre. It certainly has the cast to die for: John Turturro, Aida Turturro (strange topless scene, even), Susan Sarandon (another strange semi-topless scene), Rufus Sewell (who can do no wrong because he was in “Dark City”), Bill Irwin, Beverly D’Angelo, Katherine Borowitz, Ben Gazzara (!), and Christopher Walken in a terrible wig, a worse accent, and one of the strangest Walken readings you will ever see. And that is saying something.
Plus a couple dozen other vaguely familiar faces. All of these actors are in nearly constant motion in a strange blend of Commedia dell’arte, turn of the century touring company, slamming door farce and Italian sexual round robin. Also, puppets! Really good puppets!
But it doesn’t add up to anything very substantial, at least to me. Like most plays about the struggles of playwrights to wright plays and get them produced, this is inside baseball for those not fascinated by backstage. John Turturro will go to great lengths (and girths) to get his new play on the boards. But how far is he willing to go? As far as the endlessly and weirdly self-abasing Katherine Borowitz fears he will go? And how far will Bill Irwin allow himself to be prodded to secure a good review from the feared and omnipotent critic Christopher Walken? What about Susan Sarandon? She’s got a simple proposition. She propositions a whole lot, too. It’s mostly fun and often witty as the character couple and uncouple and the actors seamlessly shift between acting themselves and acting roles. As Sarandon says, she is acting no less when buying bread than on the stage. It’s all art for everybody.
But all that engaging. Turturro comes off not so much as a tortured artist as a thoughtless jerk (although isn’t that the default mode for tortured artists?) and everything and everyone has to revolve around him and his struggle to get his play, “Illuminata” performed instead of some Ibsen that will suit Borowitz well enough, and be a paying gig besides.
Only, the thing is, from the snippets we get to see, “Illuminata” is a tedious mawkish bore, a “he done her wrong but she begs his forgiveness anyway” vaguely misogynist narcissistic meditation on Turturro’s own tortured artist’s self-obsession. Or it seemed to me. By the time we get to see “Illuminata”, I was ready to see the movie over. If the play inside the play had been a work of genius or something, I might’ve got more out of it.
Good points? I did like the puppets. Reminded me of the inappropriate puppets in “Being John Malkovich”, even. Walken is always entertaining, and in “Illuminata” he’s not constrained by the need to create a believable character. Full parody mode, and it’s fun to watch. A terrific unhinged speech about what his critic does like, as against what he emphatically does not.
And there’s a good death scene, some nice old fashioned stage craft with drops and props, some short but appreciated gratuitous nudity, and Susan Sarandon. If you were ever a theater kid, the kid who’d knee-walk on broken glass to do a walk-on in a high school “The Music Man”, this is a picture for you. If you read the theater reviews every week in The New Yorker and know every off-off Broadway play of the last five years, knock yourself out with “Illuminata”.
Me, I knew what was going on about 25-30% of the time. Don’t regret my two hours, don’t need to see it again, even if it would clarify some plot points.